Remembering Miss Ellie on the 10th Anniversary of Her Death

Me and Miss Ellie 2

With my mom on my high school graduation day from Georgetown Prep in May 1978.

On the 10th anniversary of my mom Ellen Branson Byrd’s death – October 15, 2007 – one memory recalls her enduring influence upon my life: the day Miss Ellie, as we came to call her, brought me to a red brick row house at the corner of 5th St. NW and Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC in June 1976.

We were there to participate in the celebration for the House of Ruth’s opening: a new community residence for homeless women.

Now a sophisticated non-profit organization with a more than a $7 million budget, which provides housing, daycare and counseling services to 1,000 women and children annually, the House of Ruth back then promised to shelter eight homeless women.

But you wouldn’t have believed this was a modest undertaking by my mom’s enthusiasm, happiness, and pride that day. Like the others actively involved with the event, mom was especially pleased Eunice Kennedy Shriver would be there for the ribbon cutting. 16 then I knew it was a boon to have a Kennedy bless your event.

But I didn’t have quite the same kind of reaction when, with an almost reverential tone, mom introduced me to Dr. Veronica Maz, who founded the House of Ruth. Miss Ellie’s attitude was understandable.

Having also helped start So Others Might Eat (SOME), she was about to launch the House of Ruth and was later instrumental founding Martha’s Table: three organizations, which still fight poverty in the District.

But I didn’t know enough then to be impressed by what Maz had done or was trying to do. I was there because service was important to my mom.

Her devout parents, the Sisters of St. Joseph at Holy Comforter School, and the Visitation Sisters at Georgetown Visitation instilled Miss Ellie with her desire to serve.

The examples of her sisters Sisters Serena and Anna Marie Branson DC – the Executive Director of Catholic Charities of Albany and a missionary in Bolivia respectively – also inspired her to act.

Years later, after my time in the Jesuit Volunteers Corps, and my continued work at Catholic non-profits, and opposing the death penalty, my mom proudly, invariably introduced me as her “peace and justice son.”

But I hadn’t necessarily revealed any inclination then to live a life of service, or expressed any interest in social justice. Perhaps, though Miss Ellie had seen something she wanted to nurture in me by including me that day.

Plus, on a practical level, young and healthy and strong, I was good for lifting and moving things. Which is what I was precisely called upon to do. I don’t possess many memories of that day, but I distinctly recall being asked to carry chairs out to the lawn for the ribbon cutting.

In more than 35 years of organizing conferences, meetings, fundraisers, forums, and celebrations, I have carried, set up, unfolded, and stacked countless chairs for numerous groups in several cities. That day, my mom’s invitation prepared me for my life’s work, and a life of service.

I’m profoundly grateful to Miss Ellie for the seeds she planted that day. They grew into a life lived for others, rooted in her kind of faith and always striving for justice. And, as the old song says: “I won’t take nothing for my journey now.”

JP and Miss Ellie Wedding 1

July 19,1949. Her wedding day.

My mom continued to serve. She was on the House of Ruth’s first Board of Directors, and soon after that she was one of the first graduates of the Archdiocese of Washington’s lay ministry formation program Education for Parish Service. For several years after that, she enjoyed teaching CCD at her parish, Little Flower.

In later years, mom’s focus turned toward re-entering the workforce, tending to my dad as his health rapidly deteriorated from emphysema, and caring for her grandchildren. That service limited Miss Ellie’s community service, but she remained curious about and engaged in the world.

She read “The Washington Post” and “The New York Times” and wanted to know what the Pope, the Bishops, leading Theologians, and political commentators thought of the day’s issues.

And mom often ran late for Sunday mass because she couldn’t tear herself away from “Meet the Press,” with “that nice Catholic” Tim Russert. While others preferred reading Stephen King novels before going to bed, Miss Ellie liked contemporary Theology books, and urged her children to read her favorites.

Mom also cultivated Jesuits as friends and advisors, and was particularly devoted to the Visitation sisters, often returning to Visitation to attend alumna events, Days of Reflection, and of course, mass in their chapel.

She finally took a special interest in my work. And compiling a scrapbook of my publications, she became my biggest fan. And, I trust, as she enters her second decade in her true home, Miss Ellie roots me on still.

 

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Their Last Game, Conclusion

At five, on the day of the Senators’ final game, September 30, as JP instructed him, Bobby waited for him at the corner of 49th and Mass near the Esso. Right on time, Bobby saw the van slow, and JP said loudly out the open window, “Come on, buddy, let’s hit it. This may be the only pro team you get to see, and I couldn’t let you miss this.”

Bobby noted JP was dressed in his chinos and a yellow button down, but he wore Tretorn sneakers. The Senators’ departure disillusioned Bobby unlike anything he had known. But being with JP may take some of the sting away.

The van chugged down Massachusetts Avenue and through Rock Creek Park. They came out of the park and on to Independence Avenue, and Bobby saw the Washington Monument and The Smithsonian and The Capitol, part of everyone’s Washington. When they passed The Capitol, the city seemed alien to Bobby.

“That’s the Library of Congress,” JP said, as they waited for the light at 1st and Independence. “Our great-grandfather supervised a work crew who built it.” “And dad,” JP said, as they waited for a light at East Capitol and 3rd St., “grew up in the next block.”

They were stopped at a light near a large park when JP said, “That’s Lincoln Park. Dad told me there was a great movie theater there – The Carolina – were you could go on a Saturday, and take in a double or triple feature. All for a quarter or something.”

They continued up East Capitol, and JP said, “Holy Comforter is on the right; dad was baptized, received his first communion, confirmed and graduated from eighth grade there.”

They turned left before RFK, and JP said, “That’s Eastern High. When dad was a senior at Jesuit he hit a homer in the top of the ninth to beat Eastern in the city title game.”

As Bobby learned about his family history and their connections to the city in which he was born and raised but didn’t know, Bobby realized how limited his world had been until that summer.

JP parked the van, and they walked to the stadium, and heard the crowd chant, “We want Short; we want Short; we want Short.” The brothers reached their seats in the right field corner.

RFK

RFK Stadium.

Voices buzzed, and people moved through the aisles carrying signs that said things like, “Good riddance, Bob Short,” and “Thanks for the memories,” and “Frank Howard, will you marry me?”

Bobby marveled as JP rested his feet on the seat in front of him and sipped his beer and ate peanuts, tossing the shells aside and watched the game. It surprised Bobby when JP spoke in the sixth inning.”Holy s***,” he said, “Morganna, the Kissing Bandit. Get a load of those tits.”

Bobby started to smile and look up, but he suddenly felt he shouldn’t be in on the joke. He knew Morganna was a stripper, who snuck up on and kissed celebrities. Big as volleyballs, her breasts bounced in her tight, short dress as she ran on to the field to kiss the Senators’ best player Frank Howard, standing at the plate.

Frank Howard

Frank Howard.

But Bobby believed Hondo, as he was known, didn’t want anything to do with Morganna, but Bobby watched him bend his massive body reluctantly, awkwardly to receive her kiss. After Morganna left, Bobby saw Hondo hit a majestic homer to left center that gave the Senators the lead.

At the end of the eighth inning, fans surged to the stadium’s railings. As it did during Redskins’ games, the stands bounced and swayed and pitched like they might collapse, and the people again chanted, “We want Short; we want Short; we want Short.

As if someone had given them a signal, when ninth inning began, people went over the railings, and JP said to Bobby, “Let’s go.”

Bobby saw others run in all directions, and he wanted to run around like them, but he followed JP, who headed down the fist base line. Converging from all sides, it felt as if people were swallowing Bobby. He felt clammy, and his heart was running all of the sudden, and he panicked he could lose JP.

The crowd’s momentum carried and jostled Bobby from side to side along the first base line, and two guys ran through and knocked him down. More people bumped and kicked against Bobby as if they were stubbing their toes.

When he didn’t feel anyone else hitting him, Bobby stood and turned and saw JP, trying to elbow past four other men, as they race walked down the first base line, but the men grabbed JP from behind, and holding him from all sides, the men stretched out JP above the ground as if he were a human battering ram.

Bobby ran and knocked the man who held JP’s right leg off his brother, but the man Bobby knocked down got up and pushed Bobby back into one of the other men holding JP, and that man said, “What the f***, buddy.”

Bobby stepped back and away, and the men, who had been holding JP dropped him and punched and pushed and elbowed each other.

Bobby saw JP wanted the first base bag. Bobby sensed JP’s experience lining the fields at Friendship served him well, as he loosed the base from the ground, and Bobby saw JP stand and come toward him with the base under his arm. “We’ve gotta run,” JP said.

Bobby struggled to keep up with JP, who held the bag close to his chest, and took two or three steps at a time, and he didn’t stop until he reached his van. Back in the parking lot, Bobby’s stance mirrored his brother’s: bent over, hands on knees, sucking air.

The base lay at JP’s feet, and Bobby looked at JP and felt they felt the same thing: that they couldn’t believe they had gotten away with it. Bobby watched JP stretch and shake out his bad knee, and he rose to his full height. And his brother smiled and raised the base high over his head.

With a depth of wonder and affection and gratitude he hadn’t experienced, Bobby beheld his big brother, who, like his hero Muhammad Ali, shuffled his feet, his prize held aloft.

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